The Rules of Reality TV Are Taking Hold of the Israeli University

The use of questionnaire-based rating systems for university lecturers destroys the special relationship between student and teacher.

Masha Manapov

Some years ago, teacher ratings were introduced into university teaching in Israel. The rating of teaching is a close cousin of the questionnaires used by various organizations to measure employee or customer satisfaction. In the universities, these ratings turned students into consumers and lecturers into service providers. This “positive” move, with its strong whiff of egalitarianism and liberalism – originally meant to protect workers from arbitrary treatment by the boss, and to protect consumers from exploitation – has kept the real masters firmly in place and served them well as a tool for oversight and control of their subordinates.

In the university, one thing that came to the fore with the introduction of such surveys was the verbal aggressiveness of the anonymous respondents, who were asked to provide not just a numerical evaluation denoting their level of satisfaction with the lecturer and the course, but also a personal opinion. A similar aggressiveness is often met with in online “talkbacks” posted under the cover of anonymity. Rating under the cover of anonymity has become a synonym for the very right to freedom of speech. While such uninhibitedly offensive language is more strikingly present in such questionnaires, in fact it is not very different from the “positive” effusive outpourings of schematic praises that also sometimes appear in these contexts. These polar opposites are equally symptomatic of the breakdown in the status of academic teaching.

Why does aggression flourish when a person is given a platform to make her views heard? For here, the student is positioned right “at eye level” with the lecturer or professor whose qualities are being ranked, just as the talkback commenter reacts to and rates the words of the author of a piece published online. With questions like “Does the lecturer have a solid grasp of the material?” or “Is the class material well organized?” the student is offered an opportunity to tell the professor how he or she should be teaching: what are the weaknesses found in the manner of teaching, where the professor’s knowledge – or personality – is lacking, and why his or her thinking is faulty. Why then, just when equality is ostensibly implemented, does aggressiveness seem to reign supreme?

The answer is to be found in the question itself. Anonymity doesn’t just provide immunity for aggression, it also fosters it in a situation where, almost paradoxically, the person rendering the opinion is eradicated. Faced with the questionnaire, just when the student is asked to rank the professor and the course, he or she ceases to be “somebody” – a unique individual with desires and passions – and becomes “nobody,” because this is a situation in which the difference between student and professor, the very fact of there being a difference, is denied.

This denial has lethal implications for the act of teaching because the difference between professor and student – the distance between them, even their otherness – is critical for the possibility of learning. Only when the student assumes that the teacher has a genuine connection to the material being taught, a passion for a knowledge the professor holds and yet is posited as not yet attained by the student – only when this gap is perceived by the student as the mystery of knowledge waiting to be solved, to be profoundly explored, that the student really aspires to gain this knowledge.

This difference between professor and student is erased in anonymous questionnaires, because such questionnaires negate the singularity, not only of the professor but mainly of the student. When individual uniqueness is erased, the subject becomes a vehicle of blind drives, and he responds to this erasure with aggression. Paradoxically, such situations of aggressive response to equality are produced in an age when equal rights are of primary concern. Advocates of equal rights for this or that minority group, in the name of the purity of an avowed principle, end up aggressively targeting anything perceived as different. When children are invited to perceive themselves as their parents’ friends and equals, sharing everything with them, being privy to every secret and having completely equal rights – such children often act out or let off steam, and ultimately have trouble finding their place in the world.

In the faculty to which I belong, where at the end of the course of study no engineering degree or launch pad to the world of business entrepreneurship awaits, the learning experience often seems akin to a farcical obstacle course on the way to learning. There is no mandatory attendance (since it is the right of each student to decide whether or not to attend class); the classrooms are hooked up to the online communications systems, (since it appears reactionary to disconnect a person-of-this-age from his or her screen); and the students sit before screens and struggle – in the best-case scenario – with the question of whether to surf the Web or study, whether to listen to what’s being said in class or to the clamor of the Internet. I remember sitting in a colleague’s course, watching the students sitting in the rows before me busy online – buying clothes or searching for an apartment to rent or chatting with friends in other classes. Why did they even bother to come? That’s just the thing: Students want to learn, but the zealous protection of their right to rate, to be absent, to surf the Web or take a nap makes learning impossible.

The right to freedom has become an imperative, and students are left in an untenable situation in which the promotion of their rights as consumers undermines their ability to be students. The chance of the student to come across the real knowledge supposed to be held by the professor – and here I’m not talking about information that can also be read on the Internet, but rather knowledge that cannot be disassociated from the person who carries it, who conveys it – such a chance may exist, but it exists against all odds. The conditions in which learning takes place have attention-deficit disorder built right in, and the university, apparently unknowingly, seems to be doing everything in its power to prevent teaching from happening.

This built-in attention disorder prevents real teaching from taking place, and the professor is reduced to someone uttering empty messages that can anyway be found in the lesson summaries posted online. The professor’s role is becoming less and less clear, obscured by the power of the ratings industry. She feels obliged to supply stimuli that will exceed the noise of the web, and increasingly subjugates herself to the industry that has dispossessed her of the possibility of teaching.

All the statistics about students’ growing satisfaction in this age of ratings won’t do any good: Satisfaction ratings do not support teaching nor can they improve teaching. And they certainly do nothing to encourage the possibility of learning.

Therefore, everything that is making academia more and more similar to a television reality show, in which viewers instantly rate the contestants, should be immediately and completely abolished. The teacher-student encounter is the real heart of the academic experience. It is the very reason for the university’s existence. Sabotaging this encounter with ratings and the like undermines the justification for its existence.

The writer teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University.